Consumer Attitudes Toward Patriotic Advertising
Stripes and Stars and Selling Cars:
An Analysis of Consumer Attitudes Toward Patriotic Themes in Advertising
Shannon L. Bichard, Ph.D.
School of Mass Communications
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409
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Paper submitted to the Advertising Research Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Convention, 2002
AV Requirements: Overhead projector
The use of patriotism in advertising has become increasingly popular. The current study specifically addresses consumer attitudes toward patriotic advertising in the wake of America's war on terrorism. Multiple variables were statistically assessed for their relationship to consumer attitude formation and purchase intent. A telephone survey was conducted as a method to procure items for analysis. The findings suggest overall favorability toward the use of patriotic frames in advertising. These results are especially true for female consumers and for low involvement product advertising. The analysis also indicates that in some cases favorable attitudes may even lead to an increased likelihood of purchase for the product advertised.
Recent events have caused marketers to reassess their views regarding the use of patriotic themes in advertising. Historically, the use of such themes has often framed products in a positive and sometimes negative light. Consumers seem to have mixed emotions when it comes to the unlikely mix of stars, stripes, and dollar bills. It is the purpose of this study to investigate consumer opinions toward patriotic advertising in the wake of America's war on terrorism.
Several variables will be assessed for their relevance to consumer attitudes toward the use of patriotic advertising themes. First, an analysis of a variety of demographic variables will be offered to assess their relationship with the development of favorable or unfavorable attitudes. The investigation will then turn toward the media choices made by consumers and the specific product categories most often recalled utilizing patriotic advertising. The examination will conclude by exploring the relationship between message involvement and consumer attitudes as well as subsequent intention to engage in purchase behavior.
In 1942, the Advertising Federation of America wrote specific guidelines regarding the ethical use of advertising during World War II (Tansey & Hyman, 1993). The rules called for the promotion of "intelligent patriotism" (rule 21) and the general glorification of service and productive achievement (New York Times, 1942). Analysts praised the advertising industry for setting aside product promotion for a more altruistic strategy dedicated to civic duty and moral discourse (Time, 1943). Time magazine noted that "In peace, advertising sold the people plenty and pleasure; in war, advertising must sell them understanding of sacrifice and harsh restriction" (1943).
In a time where direct sacrifice was called for, patriotism in advertising played a justifiable, even critical role in mobilizing the general public. But in the current conflict, the government is striving more for a sense of normalcy than that of sacrifice and restriction. In this case, what role should advertising play in the promotion of patriotism? Many consumers have mixed emotions when it comes to marketers rallying around the flag. A recent poll conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide (September 21, 2001) indicates that the majority of adults sampled (89%) somewhat or strongly agree that it is "important for companies to advertise their products and services at this time, in keeping with the President's request for the country to return to more normal economic activities." The use of advertising is viewed favorably, but some discrepancy arises in the attitudes regarding the actual portrayal of patriotism in advertising messages.
Some argue that advertising during the war on terrorism should help to redefine our image by using patriotic messages to "reignite the understanding of America" and help citizens cope with the fear of terrorism (Advertising Age, 2001). In this respect, advertising plays the role of calling citizens to become aware and involved in the anti-terrorism campaign, hence, the promotion of product indulgence takes a backseat.
While patriotism is considered a positive ideal, the use of such symbols as a backdrop for the promotion of products and services is a more complicated matter. According to Shales (2001), there are two distinct kinds of patriotism that emerge during times of crisis: "the genuine, long-dormant and presumably heartfelt kind, and the manufactured, opportunistic, scheming phony-baloney kind." He asserts that marketing a product as a way of benefiting charitable funds is commendable, but attempting to gain profits by capitalizing on the hardship and loss of others is a totally different matter. Most would agree that it comes down to motivation, but how can we as consumers know if marketers are genuine or simply greedy? We can't. For this reason, Sanders (2001) asserts that, "marketers must be careful when relying on patriotism to connect with prospective customers."
Interestingly enough, perceptions about patriotic advertising may be influenced by demographic variables. Market research conducted by Burnett USA (2001), showed that just over half (51%) of those polled believed that companies were utilizing patriotic themes for profit, with men expressing this view more strongly than women. Another poll found that while feelings of American pride have increased for both African-Americans and whites, the number of proud whites (75%) is larger than that of African-Americans (66.6%). Gender and ethnicity, as well as other demographic categories, may indeed play an important role in consumer attitudes toward patriotism in advertising.
The product being advertised may also affect feelings toward patriotic themes. Consumers, for one reason or another, may find patriotism as more or less appropriate when used to sell a certain type of product. Polls conducted by Campbell Mithun (2001) found that automobile advertising "touting generous financing and patriotic imagery" received more criticism than others. Consumer involvement levels tend to vary with respect to different product categories and this may provide insight into the increased amount of advertising scrutiny for certain products.
Involvement generally reflects an individual's perception of the relevance and importance associated with the choice of a certain product or service (Petty & Cacioppo, 1979). The formation of attitudes under high involvement conditions has often been associated with an increase in behavioral impact (Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983). Sherif's social judgment theory indicates that persons exhibit more negative evaluations when under conditions of high involvement because of an extended "latitude of rejection" (1965). Wells and Prensky (1996) assert that high involvement decisions invoke more evaluative effort as opposed to low involvement decisions. "Buying a car is a high involvement purchase for most consumers" (Wells & Prensky, 1996). This may help to explain the increased criticism of automobile advertising with patriotic themes.
On the other hand, low involvement purchase decisions tend to arouse less feelings of relevance or importance for consumers (Wells & Prensky, 1996). In instances of low involvement, consumer attitudes appear to be more affected by peripheral cues and based on minimal scrutiny or cognitive effort (Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983). A decreased need for elaboration may occur with respect to low involvement product decisions.
The media outlet relied upon for information may also exhibit an effect upon consumer involvement. Research on hemispheral lateralization suggests that individuals process information using either left brain (rational, active, realistic) and/or right brain (emotional, impulsive, intuitive) hemispheres (Hansen, 1981). Individuals may then have different levels of active involvement depending upon which media they consume. Television viewing is primarily pictorial and is therefore considered a right brain activity with relatively low involvement. Print media, on the other hand, involves more information processing utilizing left brain activity (cognitive) and therefore may be considered a high involvement media source. If the product advertised and the type of media utilized affects consumer involvement with the message, then perhaps this involvement is related to the intensity with which consumers evaluate patriotic images.
A variety of factors appear to play a role in consumer attitudes toward patriotic themes in advertising. If variables such as message involvement, product advertised, gender, and ethnicity do indeed affect attitude formation, what is the end result? Will such attitudes have an influence on purchase behavior? A survey conducted during the Gulf War (Beverage World, 1991) indicated that many consumers (59%) would be neither more nor less inclined to buy products utilizing patriotic advertising themes. Consumers may offer criticism with respect to advertising themes, but these attitudes may or may not translate into a change in purchase behavior.
The study of how different themes affect the public's perception of messages is not new to mass communication research. Much inquiry has been made with respect to the framing of issues; the majority of which has been directed at the messages offered by the news media. The use of thematic elements to provide a "spin" on stories or news coverage has typically been referred to as second level agenda setting or framing. A brief overview of this research may offer some insight into understanding how consumers form opinions about the use of patriotic themes/frames in advertising.
The framing concept specifically focuses on the manner in which the construction of communication texts influences individual cognitions by selectively focusing on particular parts of reality while ignoring or downplaying other aspects (Shah, Domke & Wackman, 1996). The organization of such information by the media and subsequent effects have astounded researchers for years (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1944; Klapper, 1960; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Rogers & Dearing, 1987; McCombs & Evatt, 1995). Specifically with respect to advertising, framing research has identified a significant correspondence between themes used in political advertising and voter's perceptions of candidates (McCombs, Llamas, Lopez-Escobar, & Rey, 1997, 1998).
The theoretical underpinnings for framing research rest in both sociological and psychological literature. Goffman's (1974) sociological perspective asserts that individuals classify and interpret life experiences in order to make sense of them. Social frames help us to "locate, perceive, identify, and label" information (Goffman, 1974, p.21). Researchers have identified a variety of devices that signify the usage of frames such as: metaphors, exemplars, catchphrases, depictions, and visual images (Gamson & Lasch, 1983; Gamson & Modigliani, 1989). These frames influence the way in which individuals organize information.
The most prominent views on framing in psychological literature began with the experimental studies of Tversky and Kahneman (1981,1982). Their research revealed that cognitive perception of problems and evaluations produce predictable shifts of preference depending on how a message is framed. The representation of information affects judgment. Iyengar (1991) has looked at this with respect to the media and their depictions of issues such as poverty and crime. A series of experiments demonstrated that differences in the framing of such problems influenced people's perceptions of who was responsible.
Both sociological and psychological perspectives agree that the frames used to interpret a message can have a significant impact upon perception. This research seeks to further investigate the use of frames in advertising situations. The current study will specifically address consumer attitudes toward the use of patriotism in advertising during the current war on terrorism. A variety of variables will be analyzed in order to gain a more in-depth understanding of consumer attitude formation and subsequent purchase intention in response to the use of patriotic themes.
RQ1: Do consumers generally have a more favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the use of patriotic themes in advertising?
RQ2: Do differences in demographic variables have an affect on consumer attitudes toward patriotic themes in advertising?
RQ3: Which specific product categories do consumers recall using patriotic advertising themes with the most frequency?
RQ4: Does a relationship exist between consumer attitudes toward the use of patriotic themes in advertising and the involvement level of the product category they recalled using such themes with the most frequency?
RQ5: Does a relationship exist between consumer attitudes toward the use of patriotic themes in advertising and the involvement level of the media upon which they rely on for information?
RQ6: Does a relationship exist between consumer attitudes toward the use of patriotic themes in advertising and their intention to purchase the advertised products?
This research focused on consumer attitudes toward the use of patriotic themes in advertising. Multiple variables were assessed for their relationship to consumer attitude formation and purchase intent. These relationships were explored using a random telephone survey in a southwestern market. The time frame for the survey was from March 19-28, 2001.
A systematic random telephone technique was used to select telephone numbers from the March 2000-2001 directory. Trained undergraduate students conducted telephone interviews reaching 333 total respondents. Upon removing disconnected numbers and other non-contact numbers, the cooperation rate was 52.8% for households contacted.
Consumer attitudes toward patriotic advertising were assessed using the question: "On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 means favorable and 5 means unfavorable, how would you rate your overall attitude toward the use of patriotism as a theme in advertising?" Product category recall was assessed by asking respondents to name the one product category that they remember using patriotic themes with the most frequency. This question was derived in order to gain a perspective as to which products consumers most identify with patriotic framing techniques. Purchase intentions were then measured with the question: "If a company used patriotism as a theme in its advertising, would you be more likely to buy the product, less likely to buy the product or would it have no impact on your decision to buy the product?" Media reliance and usage was measured by asking respondents a variety of questions regarding their patterns of usage for an assortment of media choices including: television, radi
o, Internet, newspaper, and magazines. Finally, a variety of demographic questions were used to collect information regarding gender, age, ethnicity, income, marital status and education level.
Attitudes Toward Patriotic Advertising. The first research question investigated the overall feelings toward patriotic frames in advertising during the current war on terrorism. Responses indicated an overall positive feeling toward patriotic themes in advertising with a mean score of 3.71 (s.d.= 1.35). This score is noteworthy, especially when considering the scale of favorability only went up to a maximum of 5.
Demographic Variables and Consumer Attitudes. Research question 2 addressed the impact of demographic variables and consumer opinions regarding the use of patriotic frames in advertising. Table 1 presents a demographic profile of the sample. Specifically, the analysis investigated differences in consumer attitudes as a result of differences in demographic variables utilizing T-tests or ANOVA where applicable. Table 2 presents an overview of the statistical findings for each of the variables. The results suggest that many of the demographic variables (age, education, ethnicity) have no apparent difference with respect to attitudes toward patriotic advertising. Gender is the only variable indicating a significant difference (t = -2.08, p = .046) with females (M = 3.81, s.d. = 1.30) exhibiting slightly more favorable attitudes toward patriotic advertising than males (M = 3.48, s.d. = 1.43).
Products Recalled Emphasizing Patriotism. The third research question examined the specific product categories consumers recall using patriotic themes with the most frequency. Respondents were asked to name one product category that they noticed using patriotism with the most frequency. A variety of products were mentioned and are summarized in Table 3. The most frequent product mentioned by consumers was clothing products (25.5%). Many respondents also mentioned automobiles (14.1%), food and beverage products (11.7%), and sports-related products (10.8%).
Product Involvement and Consumer Attitudes. Research question 4 analyzed the potential difference between consumer attitudes based upon the type of product most associated with patriotic themes. In order to analyze the differences in attitude based on the involvement level of products, the items mentioned had to be collapsed into "high" or "low" involvement categories. Assignments were made based on price, complexity, importance, and risk involved in the purchase decision. Automobiles and financial services were designated "high" involvement. Clothing, food, beverages, and sports products were designated "low" involvement.
Statistical results were assessed using a t-test analysis. The findings indicate a significant difference on consumer attitudes based on the product they recalled using patriotic themes with the most frequency (t = 2.458, p = .016). Those respondents recalling low involvement products had slightly more favorable (M = 3.83, s.d. = 1.25) attitudes toward patriotic themes in advertising than those recalling high involvement products (M = 3.34, s.d. = 1.38). See Table 4 for a summary of these findings.
Media Involvement and Consumer Attitudes. The fourth research question addressed the possibility of a difference between consumer attitudes toward patriotic messages resulting from the types of media they consume. In order to analyze the differences in attitude based on the involvement level of the media used, the media choices had to be collapsed into "high" or "low" involvement categories. Assignments were made based on attentive involvement, complexity of editorial environment, and pictorial/auditory stimulation. The Internet, newspapers, and magazines were designated "high" involvement media. Television and radio were designated "low" involvement media. The findings of a t-test statistical analysis (Table 4) suggest no significant differences in consumer attitudes toward patriotic advertising based on the media upon which they rely for information (t = .759, p = .450).
Consumer Attitudes and Purchase Intentions. The final research question examined the impact of consumer attitudes toward patriotic advertising and purchase intentions for the product advertised. Results of a chi-square analysis suggest that many of the consumers sampled feel as though the use of patriotic advertising will have no impact on their purchase decisions. However, 43.5% of those with more favorable attitudes toward patriotic advertising expressed a greater likelihood to purchase the product advertised. Only 20.6% of those with more unfavorable attitudes toward patriotic advertising expressed a decrease in likelihood to purchase the product advertised (20.6%) with most expressing no impact at all (74.6%). A summary of these findings can be found in Table 5.
The current study explored consumer attitudes toward patriotic frames in advertising and a variety of variables that may affect the formation of such attitudes. This analysis utilized survey research methodology as an avenue to obtain consumer attitudes, media usage, product recall, purchase intentions, and a variety of demographic variables.
Specifically, this research was designed to investigate the differences in consumer attitudes resulting from differences in personal demographics as well as differences in message involvement. The analysis also addressed the impact of such attitudes on consumers subsequent purchase intentions.
The majority of those surveyed indicated positive feelings toward the use of patriotic frames in current advertising. This finding agrees with those who assert that advertising plays a positive role in reigniting American ideals in times of turmoil. Apparently consumers are pleased for the most part with the use of patriotic imagery in the current climate.
Results indicate a variety of factors that do and do not play a role in the development of consumer attitudes. Demographic variables appear to exert little affect on attitudes toward patriotic advertising. Gender is the only variable indicating a significant difference in consumer attitudes. The results indicate that women have slightly more favorable opinions when compared with those of men. This echoes the findings of Burnett USA (2001). Men appear to be more critical to some extent when it comes to advertising with patriotic themes. Age, education, and ethnicity offer little difference with respect to consumer attitudes (although college graduates approach statistical significance with less favorable attitudes and Hispanic/Latino ethnic groups approach significance with more favorable attitudes). Although many of the demographic variables under analysis offered non-significant results, the findings are not entirely surprising considering the size of the sample.
Consumers recalled a variety of products that utilize patriotic themes in their advertising. This was anticipated due to the increasingly popular use of patriotic imagery of all kinds in the current marketplace. Items ranged from cars to clothes to food and beverages. The lower involvement level products mentioned (clothing, food, beverages, sports items) appeared to correspond with greater favorability in attitudes toward patriotic advertising when compared with high involvement products (automobiles, financial services). This may be due to the fact that lower involvement purchase decisions involve less scrutiny (Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983). Low involvement conditions arouse less feelings of relevance or importance for consumers, while high involvement decisions provoke more evaluative effort (Wells & Prensky, 1996). This may explain the differences noted for the current study.
Consumer attitudes and media involvement appeared to have no relationship. Statistically significant differences were not detected with respect to type of media and consumer attitudes toward patriotism in advertising. This contradicts the earlier finding by suggesting that involvement level may not play a role in the evaluative effort or scrutiny exhibited by consumers toward advertising. This is not entirely surprising because one might expect a stronger connection when analyzing products as opposed to media. It is also possible that message involvement is more equally engaging with respect to different media than past research indicates. In either case, future study is needed to replicate and reassess this relationship.
Statistically significant differences were noted with respect to consumer attitudes toward patriotic advertising and purchase intentions for the products advertised. Results indicated that many respondents expressed no intention to change their purchase behavior as a result of patriotic advertising. However, an increased likelihood of purchase for the advertised product is more likely for those with favorable attitudes. Unfavorable attitudes appear to exert only minimal decrease in the likelihood to purchase the advertised product. It appears as though patriotic frames offer marketers the chance to connect with some consumers in a positive way, with relatively few repercussions. Consumers may feel as though marketers are using patriotic images as a genuine effort to reunite the country and propel the economy. Future research is necessary to investigate these beliefs and their persistence in times of greater stability.
Limitations did arise with respect to this research design. First and foremost, the findings can only be asserted with respect to the market under analysis. The sample is relatively small (333) and the results cannot be expected to persist or offer generalizations to the overall public. A national survey may be utilized for future analysis in order to generate a larger and more representative sample.
Secondly, the researcher assigned levels of product involvement and message involvement based on products recalled and media usage as indicated by respondents. Future studies will need to ask respondents to personally assess their own perceptions of "high" and "low" involvement in order to qualify these assignments and more accurately assess their relationship with attitude formation.
Finally, the measure of consumer attitude toward patriotic advertising only involved the use of one question. Future research will need to go into more depth by providing a scale utilizing multiple questions or semantic variations, thus providing a more robust representation of consumer attitudes.
Despite these limitations, the results of this study provide a valuable assessment of the factors involved in the formation of consumer attitudes toward the use of patriotic frames in advertising. The findings are overwhelmingly positive for marketers who wish to utilize patriotic imagery in an effort to connect with consumers. Results suggest that consumers welcome patriotic images especially when associated with low involvement products. These feelings of favorability are even somewhat likely to motivate consumers to buy. The patriotic frame appears to be one in which consumers find great solace and motivation during this time of uncertainty.
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Table 1: Demographic Profile of Sample
55 & Over
High School or less
Note: N = 333
Table 2: Demographic Variables and Attitudes Toward Patriotic Advertising
Dependent Variable: Attitude
t = -2.08
55 & Over
F = .528
High school or less
F = 2.101
F = 1.602
Note: * denotes statistical significance
Table 3: Product Categories
Recalled Using Patriotic Advertising
Food & Beverage Products
Note: N = 333
Table 4: Message Involvement and Attitude Toward Patriotic Advertising
Dependent Variable: Attitude
t = 2.458
t = .759
Note: *denotes statistical significance
Table 5: Attitude Toward Patriotic Advertising and Purchase Intent
Note: X2 = 47.801, df = 2, p =.000